08 January 2009

Thoughts on Alchemy Part 1 by Giles Gavin Cowen

The Modern Mans Alchemist

For most the word alchemy will conjure images of ancient monks or spiritual men attempting to transmute or magically turn any worthless metal into gold. I am sure images of ritual chanting or the signs of the zodiac being used for their magical properties will appear at the forefront of our minds. The powerfully driven media machine has led us to believe that these noble of men, dare I say scientists, were in-fact magicians no less. Calling upon cosmic energy to make gold from water, gaining riches and cursing themselves at the same time. These fictions reign supreme over this all but lost art form. There is no doubt that alchemy was both a spiritual and physical pursuit, where each alchemist would lean more to one side or the other, perhaps finding a harmony between both . The technology and instruments the employed as far back as 500BCE were stunningly advanced for there time. Some still exist and are used sparsely to this day. Admittedly the modern processes are refined, to a degree, but nevertheless easily recognisable by their heritage and ancestors.

The fundamental principle of alchemy is transmutation. Described as.

“the fundamental change of one thing into another from a grosser, impure state to a more
Refined, balanced and pure state.”

If taken in its broadest sense one could very easily apply this principle, of transmutation, to the creation of a cocktail, or a spirit. When creating a cocktail, we begin with a set of ingredients “gross” or “impure” in nature. Normally these will include a spirit, a mixer, a sweetening or souring agent and bitters or a binder. With a measure of work and understanding of each ones nature, their nature being how the flavours will interact with one another, whether they will compliment and sit happily side by side or constantly overpower and suppress one-another, it is possible to achieve a perfectly balanced, refined state. Each flavour existing in harmony with the next. Each flavour being a product of the next, interdependent upon each other to compliment and flow seamlessly across the taste buds. Even in the relationship of ingredients in a cocktail we can see the Alchemists influence.

Alchemist laboured under the condition of there being only four elements. Each one in harmony with the next, each one a product of each other. You would be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu , for verification all you would need do is look up a paragraph. This rotation and interlinking relationship between the elements is obvious in practices of both alchemy and modern day sciences. Earth (solid) can be transmuted to water (liquid) by melting or dissolution in water. A simple modern example of this being either melting a chocolate, thus creating a sauce or even taking a sugar cube and dissolving it in a hot tea. Water can be transmuted to air through boiling, an obvious offspring of any pot of tea you have ever boiled. Air (gas) to water is perhaps most notable in the process of distillation. Three states of matter are actually present during distillation.. We begin with water, which is heated and becomes air. Air is then condensed and transmutes back into its original form of water. Giving us, perhaps the most perfect example of the relationship between these elements, where fire is also present in the heating of the water. Air to Fire is, still further, depicted in combustion or what could in modern terms be described as an explosion. These elements shaped much of the history and work undertaken by many notable alchemists.

Later in the history of Alchemy, one of the greatest alchemists named Paracleus came upon a new wave of thought. He created the three principles. Mercury-spirit, Sulphur-soul and later Salt-body. This ideology had a resounding impact with most subsequent alchemic work being based around the three principles rather than the four elements. Paracleus defined them as the three prime essences; sulphur being that which boils described as oil. Mercury rises as fumes and salt lays in the ashes. Alchemy regards the essences as the basic makeup of any object, not just a metal or a water but inclusive of flora and fauna. They were great leaps ahead of their time in that they could extract, what was described as mercury form a plant using fermentation to gain alcohol from its inherent natural sugars. The spirit of sulphur of a plant was its essential oil, extracted by either using distillation or a crude pressing method. The plants salt or solid body form was what lay in the ashes. A process called calcination, which put very simply is to burn a substance until it is ash. This ash is then taken and mineral salts retrieved.

These three “principles” can reside within any and all matter. They are the basis of all that is. Take any object, for our purposes a piece of lead will do nicely, then take it apart piece by piece. Purify it refine its gross and impure nature. What would be left is pure mercury, pure sulphur and pure salt. Contemporary physicists would refer to these principles and neutrons, protons and electrons. Again a perfect example of how the alchemists were laying the foundations for modern science, most likely completely and blissfully unaware of the effect they would have.

Among their most notable of leaps into the modern world is the deep understanding of the effect that heat has on any compound. As I briefly touched on earlier calcination is probably the simplest example. On a more complex level distillation techniques would be used to render spirit from wine making what could easily be described as the original eau de vie. However in doing this they stumbled across the fact that alcohol will boil at around 80c enabling them to render a spirit of around 50-60abv from wine. This was named, imaginatively “the spirit of wine” and would then be used in the process of herbal tinctures or for medicinal remedies. In accordance with the pure nature of the alchemist, any water being used must be distilled and therefore purified before use. This process was time consuming and arduous but is host to the dedication and patience of the alchemist to see everything that begins through to its finale. After the completion of the purification, if one were to have created earth from the water, or put in other terms, frozen this refined water creating ice. This would then become what we now see as completely clear ice, seen in many hundreds of ice sculptures and bars throughout the world. This ice holds properties far more desirable, to any bartender, than normal ice. Its complete lack of flavour and extremely slow dilution make it a tool with which experimentation can bring very interesting results.

The fashion for herbal remedies has, recently, been re-incarnated across our high streets. People flood to buy Echinacea, or whatever happens to be the latest in fashionable antioxidant flush herb or fruit. Even St. Johns Wort has been revisited by scientists, and has since been proven to be as credible and functional of an anti-depressant as Prozac, albeit minus most of the side effects. This craze is relatively young among mainstream consumers , though the techniques and principles were, of course, being used by alchemists thousands of years before. The methodology has changed little over the centuries. The plant is either pressed or distilled in alcohol, rendering mercury. The oil will rise to the top of the distillate and can be easily skimmed from the top giving us a herbal tincture or essential oil.

The true path of the alchemist is an in-depth, physical, spiritual and mental path undertaken by men seeking riches, enlightenment or for the most noble of beings self knowledge, growth and purification. What I have attempted to open your mind to your mind to, is that to appreciate and understand the impact of this great practice, one does not need to be a magician, a chemist or a spiritual man of any kind. The only pre-condition is a thirst for understanding of what exists around all of us and how it came to be. Paracleus wrote

“Alchemy means: to carry to its end something that has not yet been completed”

Though this quote is broad and open to a plethora of interpretation. It cannot begin to describe the path of the alchemist. It does,infact, enable anybody with a hunger for knowledge to unlock the door, of common misconception, we find ourselves locked behind. It offers a reasoned, logical and diverse approach to an age old art. The repercussions, of which, are still felt to this day and surround us with every step we take. The difference is now you can start to see them more clearly.

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